Green Bay Packers: Grading Strength of Every Position Unit at the Start of Camp
The Green Bay Packers report to training camp on July 25. Now is the time of year to put the 2013 season in the rearview mirror—keeping it in view for perspective but looking ahead to the potential of 2014.
Some of the units that were strong for the Packers last season remain solid heading into training camp, like the wide receivers group, while others that struggled in 2013, like the secondary, look to make strides toward improvement.
The following preview assigns a letter grade to each position group as the start of training camp rapidly approaches. The evaluations take into account 2013 performance but, even more so, it factors in improvements made through the draft and free agency and reports out of OTAs and minicamp.
We'll examine which position groups still have some looming question marks and which ones look ready to go to begin the season.
Regardless of the depth behind him, Aaron Rodgers makes sure that any quarterback group is going to receive a high grade. And Packer backup situation appears on paper to be in better shape heading into this training camp than it did last year at this time, when Rodgers' backups were Graham Harrell and B.J. Colema.
Veteran Matt Flynn is in place for another season, and Scott Tolzien looks to continue developing by correcting the mistakes he committed last season when he stepped in for an injured Aaron Rodgers. If he can limit his miscues, Tolzien could round out a talented bench at the position.
Packers.com's Mike Spofford expects Tolzien to receive the majority of snaps in Green Bay's preseason games, with the aim of working on his ball security and consistency.
If undrafted free agent Chase Rettig has a successful camp, there's a chance he could land a spot on the practice squad.
Tolzien and Flynn helped Green Bay stay alive after Rodgers' injury in 2013, but there's no doubt that having a healthy Rodgers for 16 games gives Green Bay one of the best quarterback situations in the league.
In Eddie Lacy, DuJuan Harris and James Starks, the Packers have three potential every-down backs who each combine strength and agility with elusiveness.
But the Packers need to monitor his workload from the 284 carries he had last season, which were the fifth most in the league. They can rest assured that both Harris, who was the expected starter at this time last offseason, and Starks can each rotate in not only on individual downs but for entire drives to keep this corps fresh.
Last year was supposed to be Harris' opportunity to prove himself, but he missed the entire 2013 season with a knee injury. But he had two touchdowns in the four games he played in 2012 and averaged 4.6 yards on 34 carries in those games. If he can stay healthy and meet his potential, his best years are ahead of him.
Lacy has proven himself one of the league's most explosive backs in just one year, and Harris and Starks are two of the more solid rotational backs in the league. Then, of course, there's John Kuhn, who graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 4 fullback last season.
All together, Green Bay has one of the best backfields in the league.
Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson is one of the best in the league at drafting for the wide receiver position, and since he came on board in 2005, the Packers have consistently had one of the deepest and most productive receiver corps in the league.
Though the Packers in recent offseasons have lost big-name talents Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and James Jones, Green Bay could still have one of the NFL's best receiving groups in 2014. In fact, the Packers have more talented players at receiver than perhaps any other position, so training camp will give the team an opportunity to solidify a roster area that may well include six players.
“It might not be the big names like we had in the past when we had the whole stable of guys, but I think you could definitely see us keeping six guys there in that position because we are pretty deep group,” Aaron Rodgers told Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin.
The Packers currently have 10 receivers on the 90-man roster, including Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin, rookies Davante Adams (Round 2), Jared Abbrederis (Round 5) and Jeff Janis (Round 7) and 2013 holdovers Kevin Dorsey, Alex Gillett, Chris Harper and Myles White.
Chances are good that Adams, Abbrederis and Janis get slotted into spots four through six, which Rodgers said are really "wide open." But they'll have to beat out players like Harper and White, who have already have experience being on the 53-man roster.
Nelson graded out as the Pro Football Focus' No. 2 receiver in the league in 2013 (subscription required). Though Cobb played only six games, he scored four touchdowns, including the one that saved Green Bay's season in the critical Week 17 matchup against Chicago, and was on pace for nearly 1,200 receiving yards.
Boykin is quickly emerging into a solid threat for Rodgers. By the end of 2013, he had 681 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 13.9 yards per reception.
Green Bay consistently has multiple receivers finish in the league's top 25, and 2014 should be no different. This group will find the end zone often and make it difficult for opponents to outscore the Packers.
The problem Green Bay will face at tight end in training camp is that no one player has emerged as the clear-cut starter.
The Packers have plenty of players with potential, but the position is still largely a question mark. And Jermichael Finley's uncertain medical status and cryptic tweets loom over it all.
As things stand, the Packers' starting tight end in Week 1 could be rookie Richard Rodgers, newly re-signed Andrew Quarless or, less likely, third-year player Brandon Bostick, who is making a push for the starting job per Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And the possibility that the Packers medical staff clears Finley to return can't yet be completely ruled out.
Rodgers, a tight end prospect from Cal, was a standout player during OTAs, per Dunne, catching one-handed passes and establishing himself as a capable in-line blocker. Quarless sat out spring activities with an undisclosed injury. Undrafted free agent Colt Lyerla didn't wow anyone in the spring, but he had the best vertical jump (39 inches) and one of the fastest 40-yard dash times (4.61 seconds) among all tight ends at the NFL combine, so the sheer physical potential is there.
Still, without a clear No. 1 option at this position group, the Packers have some decisions to make during camp, and the uncertainty at the position, despite the potential of the players that compose it, drags the grade down considerably.
The departure of starting (and star) center Evan Dietrich-Smith and the question of who will replace him is about the only uncertainty facing this Packers offensive line, which is otherwise a solid group heading into 2014.
Centers J.C. Tretter and rookie Corey Linsley will engage in a battle for the starting job and, with Aaron Rodgers calling many of his own protections, shouldn't have a hard time assimilating.
Meanwhile, Green Bay has what is possibly the best guard duo in the league in Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. Both finished in the top 15 among all NFL guards in 2013 in Pro Football Focus rankings, with Sitton grading out as the No. 2 guard overall in the league. Sitton allowed only one quarterback sack in 2013.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari was thrown into the starting spot last season when Bryan Bulaga suffered an injury during camp, and he will be rewarded with the starting job this season, as Bulaga moves to the right side.
Bakhtiari allowed eight sacks, four hits and 27 quarterback hurries last season, but the majority of those came during the first half of the year, per Pro Football Focus' count. This looks like a line that can keep Rodgers upright in 2014 and be effective in run blocking, even with the uncertainty at center.
Because we're including Julius Peppers and Mike Neal in the linebackers group, the defensive line in 2014 will come down to some standout talents (Mike Daniels) and some home-grown players who need to prove themselves this season (Jerel Worthy, Datone Jones).
Capers expects Jones to make big strides this season. He plans to pair Jones and Mike Daniels at defensive tackle and deploy them as inside rushers in nickel and dime situations, per ESPN's Rob Demovksy. That should increase the number of sacks the defensive line is responsible for in 2014.
Worthy hasn't been able to stay healthy enough to prove he can have a significant impact on the line, a trend that has continued this offseason, as he hasn't participated in any practices to date. His development during camp will be key to watch.
Re-signing B.J. Raji and moving him back to nose tackle will help anchor the line with some veteran consistency, but by choosing not to re-sign Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly or C.J. Wilson, the defensive line has shifted from an emphasis on veteran experience to youthful potential.
The group that started the season in 2013 helped the Packers to a top-three rushing defense, but it's unclear if this unit will be as successful out of the gate. Daniels and Jones should certainly help in the pass rush, but losing veteran wide bodies could hurt the run defense. As things stand now, the question marks in this group outweigh the stars.
Of course, when players like Peppers, Nick Perry or Neal line up at end and not linebacker, this unit could take on a whole new look quickly.
With Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers at one end of the spectrum, A.J. Hawk closer to the middle and Brad Jones near the other end, the linebackers group averages out to a slightly above-average grade.
Matthews is versatile and talented enough to rush from anywhere on the field. With Peppers in the mix, the Packers will have any number of ways to use Matthews, which could include lining him up opposite or even next to the former Chicago defensive end.
The two of them on the field are impossible to double-team simultaneously.
Though some thought Carl Bradford was drafted to compete for a starting job at inside linebacker, the Packers plan to start him off on the outside.
If Matthews can remain healthy, this could shape up to be one of the more fearsome 3-4 outside linebacker corps in the league.
However, the inside will need further attention during camp. A.J. Hawk had statistically one of the best years of his career in 2013, recording 74 tackles and a career-high five sacks. But Hawk seemed to struggle against speed through much of the season, allowing runners to break through the middle more often than was necessary.
And Brad Jones' job appears to be safe for now, but perhaps it shouldn't be. "Brad's our starter until I'm told otherwise," linebackers coach Winston Moss said in late June, per ESPN's Rob Demovsky. But Jamari Lattimore got a chance to prove what he can do last season when he made four starts in place of the injured Jones, and that could lead to more opportunities for playing time for him this preseason.
(Outside Linebackers Grade: A)
(Inside Linebackers Grade: C)
If we were grading the performance of the secondary in 2013, we'd have to be harsh here. The safeties didn't record a single interception and the passing defense finished 24th in the league, allowing an average of 247 yards per game and 30 passing touchdowns.
But training camp is about looking forward, and the outlook for this group is positive in 2014. Re-signing Sam Shields anchors a cornerback unit that, along with Tramon Williams, features two veterans who had four picks apiece in 2013, and neither of whom allowed an opposing quarterback a passer rating better than 88, per Pro Football Focus.
The Packers trimmed the fat at safety by cutting Jerron McMillian and electing not to re-sign M.D. Jennings. They drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and moving Micah Hyde to safety. In making these moves, Green Bay addressed a serious problem from last season, and it's hard to imagine that this unit won't be leaps and bounds better than its 2013 counterpart. We can expect that with a capable player opposite him, Morgan Burnett will also perform better.
And having a camp competition for the starting free safety spot between Clinton-Dix and Hyde can only be a good thing, but regardless of which player receives the Week 1 nod, both should see plenty of snaps this season.
The secondary is still an unproven unit, so the grade reflects that, but it also must account for the improvements the Packers have made this offseason.
Special teams players are largely disregarded when they're performing well and vilified when they perform poorly, and kicker Mason Crosby is the shining example of that. But after making a career-low 63.6 percent of his field goals in 2012, Crosby was better than ever in 2013 with a career-high 89.2 percent, including seven of 50-plus yards.
Don't expect any competition at the kicker, punter or long snapper positions this training camp, as Crosby, Tim Masthay and Brett Goode all return this season.
Kick and punt returns may look a little different this season, as Green Bay should move Randall Cobb and Micah Hyde fully out of those roles. It's very likely the Packers could choose to use rookie Jared Abbrederis in a punt return role, since he had extensive experience doing just that at Wisconsin. DuJuan Harris, meanwhile, spent some time returning kicks during minicamp.
Overall, this is a competent unit that might not be flashy, but it doesn't have any glaring issues either.
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